The Seattle Thunderbirds are off to a great start in the WHL playoffs (Thunderbirds photo)
By Andrew Eide
After their solid 3-1 victory on Sunday night, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves with a 2-0 lead over Everett in their opening round playoff series. The T-Birds haven’t had a 2-0 series lead since, well, last year when they won the first three games against Kelowna.
When asked if there was a lesson to be learned from last year, when they could not close out Kelowna, head coach Steve Konowalchuk made it clear that they weren’t even thinking about wrapping anything up yet. There is a lot of hockey to play in this series and the T-Birds will have to turn in two more solid performances if they wish to move on.
Here are the odds and ends from the playoffs so far.
New kids on the block
The T-Birds have a number of players who are getting their first on-ice playoff experience. Only two games in and all of them have been a big reason for the Seattle lead. Taran Kozun has been lights out, Russell Maxwell has two big goals, Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie have been vital in Seattle’s defensive effort.
One of Seattle’s returning players is also getting his first go at playoff action. Branden Troock scored the game winning goal Sunday and has been a force so far in the two games. He is playing at the same level that he was around the holidays, just prior to him getting hurt and missing a handful of games.
“It’s definitely exciting, it’s a lot of fun,” Troock said after Sunday’s win. “It’s something I haven’t been in for five years. This is my first time so I’m enjoying the moment and it’s going to be a good ride.”
Troock’s skill set is unique in that he has good speed and plays a strong physical game. Konowalchuk referred to him as one of the keys for Seattle in this playoff series, and so far he has been. With how strong Everett is in the neutral zone, Troock’s skill set is an asset — the speed in the neutral zone and the strength on the forecheck.
“They’re good in the neutral zone,” Troock said of the Silvertips. “We’ve got to use our speed to get pucks deep and get on their D-men. That’s the way our team likes to play, get physical on them so we’re going to keep doing that.”
Special teams are special
Seattle’s penalty kill has been a big story in the first two games. They are 10-for-11 on the kill so far, only giving up the one five-on-three tally in Game 1.
The biggest moment for the penalty kill was in Game 1 during the second period. Seattle was short handed four times in the first five minutes of that period and clinging to a two-goal lead. Everett had the 10th best power play during the regular season and while able to cash in on the two-man advantage, they were shut out the rest of the way.
On the other side of the ice the T-Birds power play has been clicking. They have three official power play goals and one unofficial score as Maxwell’s goal Sunday came just after the penalty ended. What’s working? All four goals have come as a result of quick and decisive puck movement by the T-Birds. When Everett goalie Austin Lotz has made the stops, Seattle has had players, most notably Maxwell, crash the net to pot the rebounds.
It is a far cry from last year’s playoff series against Kelowna when the T-Birds couldn’t buy a power play goal. In the seven games last year they were a frustrating 0-for-27 and in many ways, that was the reason they lost.
The boring, boring West?
So far the Western Conference playoffs have yet to produce any drama. All four series have 2-0 leads with the higher seed having the edge. With the exception of the Seattle-Everett series, all the series will now move to the lower seeds home rink. Will one of them get back in it this week?
In the East, there has been a little more drama. The Brandon Wheat Kings are in the lead for pulling off the biggest upset as they lead the second seeded Regina Pats 2-0. That series now returns to Brandon, where the Wheat Kings can put away the Pats.
Playoff Three Stars of the week
Two games in and it’s time to recognize the three top T-Birds players so far. These awards don’t mean anything, but who doesn’t like three stars?
Third Star: As mentioned, Branden Troock has been a force so far in the two playoff games. He has a goal and an assist and is playing hard at both ends of the ice. That earns him our coveted third star of the week.
Second Star: Defenseman Shea Theodore has chipped in with three assists on Seattle’s five goals. But he earns this star more for the job he is doing in his own end. Konowalchuk has made sure that Theodore and defense partner Jerret Smith are on the ice against the Josh Winquist line. A tall task that Theodore and company have handled, holding that line to no goals and only two assists.
First Star: You have to look no further for the first star then the T-Birds net. Taran Kozun, playing in his first two playoff games, has been spectacular. He has a save percentage of .970 and has stood on his head for several important stretches during the two games. The save he made Sunday night against Jujhar Khaira with the score tied was nothing short of spectacular. How would that game have swung if Khaira scored there? Luckily for Seattle, they’ll never have to find out.
Game 3 of the T-Birds opening round WHL Playoff series is Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center. Face off is at 7 P.M.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.